When I’m busy I become omnivorous in my reading habits. I graze on fiction and non-fiction, poetry and snippets of essays. I don’t engage in a long-term relationship but read for comfort, pleasure, reminders of what I love about words and humans and the world. I curl into bed at the end of a busy teaching day, grateful for the hours of silence and solitude ahead of me (albeit in sleep), and read just a few paragraphs, words or stanzas, before my eyes beg to close.
A few old lovers have been inhabiting my bed at these hours. Joan Didion’s creative non-fiction Goodbye to All That chronicles eight years in her twenties spent in New York—a city which she says is only for the very rich, very poor and very young. The story begins with a green Didion arriving in New York in a dress which had ‘seemed very smart in Sacramento’ and ends when she is not so young anymore and spiraling into what might be a first episode of major depression. The writing breaks my heart and makes me feel alive, but in a different way to when I first read it at twenty-four. Then, I understood the essay as a piece about falling in love with a place. Now I think of its themes as being our own mortality (as experienced by those freshly graduated from being the very young), a deep weariness with oneself and the transactional nature of our lives on earth—everything exacts a price.
“I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there…”
Along with Didion, on my bedside table is an old copy of Selected Poems by T.S. Eliot, given to me by an aunty at age eleven but undiscovered until recently. School-teachery as it may be, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock sends a certain excitement through me. It’s the exacting nature of the words and the steady, quivering cadence; a clean, modernist aesthetic like a well-shaven face. LikeGoodbye to All That, there’s a heady combination of decay and promise; delight founded on something which is already disappearing beneath your feet. It leaves me wanting to emulate the style and heed the call ‘Let us go then, you and I’, following Alfred, or Eliot, endlessly out into the half-deserted streets.
Underneath Eliot is a similarly slender anthology of American poet Wendell Berry, Leavings. If Didion is considering mortality from the perspective of thirty, Berry is living daily with the concept of death. For forty years he has farmed the same country in Kentucky and many of his poems are love poems for his land and wife. The work is completely free of pretense and deals—like Didion but from a rural viewpoint—with the reciprocal relationship between human and place. He despises the consumption of twenty-first century man, whose ‘…mind grows a big belly, a sack full/of the thought of more, and the whole/structure of enough, of life itself,/which is never more nor less/than enough, falls in pieces’. I read Berry when I need to return to earth. He writes and lives in deep thanks for the tangible and deceptively simple natural life around him: black ants, warm ground, a stoic neighbor, a river breaking its banks. I feel a similar kind of gratitude when I pull up the doona to my ears and steal a few pages by lamplight.
Jane Jervis-Read’s novella Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall won the inaugural Viva La Novella Prize and is now available in selected bookstores or as an ebook.